A rear wheel from a yellow Ford Mustang loses traction and lets out a short screech as the driver accelerates out of the In-N-Out Burger parking lot on Calle Real in Goleta. The car is out of sight as it enters the 101 freeway at Turnpike Road, but the rumbling echo from its custom exhaust system continues to tear down the onramp – a loud testament to the driver’s continued acceleration.
There was a crowd of over 50 car enthusiasts in the In-N-Out parking lot last Friday night, like there has been every Friday night since late last year. The gathering of mostly local college students meets around 10 p.m. to talk about their cars, eat hamburgers and meet new people. Many in the group shake their heads in disapproval of the yellow mustang’s exhibition of speed, as they do any time a car screeches out of the parking lot.
That is because police unfairly assume that all people driving modified cars are using them for illegal street racing, especially when owners of cars with racing-inspired modifications like spoilers, tinted windows and custom rims and tires drive dangerously, said Steven Chan, third-year mechanical engineering major at UCSB.
“That’s not what we’re about – those guys have never been out here before,” Chan said, motioning to the yellow Mustang and a small blue sedan blaring hip-hop music through open windows and doors. “They’re the cause-trouble type. This is what we do; we’re not out street racing, we’re just hanging out.”
Chan, who started www.sbcars.net in October 2003 to connect a Santa Barbara community of nearly 150 car-modification enthusiasts, said his group has noticed a significant increase in the number of people receiving tickets for driving illegally modified cars within the past two months.
As it turns out, they’re right.
Early this year, local California Highway Patrol officers and Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies received training from the San Diego Police Dept. regarding how to spot cars with illegal engines and other modifications.
Police say such modifications are dangerous because they increase the likelihood of accidents occurring due to excessive speed, racing-related or not, and because they contribute to air pollution and auto theft.
Local car enthusiasts say modifying their cars for occasional racing at a supervised track is a hobby that keeps them out of trouble. They say they have no interest in putting themselves or other drivers at risk by racing on public roads – even if there was a quarter-mile stretch of level asphalt without traffic lights or blind intersections anywhere in the county.
“We’re not San Diego. We’re not Los Angeles,” said Scott Brenner, a 19-year-old UCSB freshman history major. “We’re not ‘The Fast and the Furious’ movie.”
Chan and the large group of local car enthusiasts agree.
“The cops are cracking down to fight a nonexistent problem,” Chan said. “There is no organized street racing in Santa Barbara.”
At a barbecue last week in Chan’s Isla Vista apartment, several dozen car modifiers and other friends gather to do what they usually do: eat, hang out and talk about their cars. The group includes men and women, 16-year-old high school students, Santa Barbara City College students, UCSB students, graduates and other locals in their mid- to late-20s.
They swap stories about the legal troubles that many have incurred by taking to public streets illegally modified engines, headlights and an endless array of other customizable options – even though they were obeying traffic laws when they were pulled over. Some have received around half a dozen fix-it tickets, in addition to tickets for other offenses – including speeding. Between fines and costs associated with replacing illegal parts, some members of the group said they have paid over $1,000.
John Lazear, a 19-year-old UCSB freshman mechanical engineering major, said he’s received five fix-it tickets for driving his tricked-out, 1993 Honda Del Sol. Thanks to a new engine and other modifications, his car is currently pumping out double its original horsepower.
While people in Isla Vista get ticketed for being minors in possession of alcohol or drunk in public, Lazear said the police are also ticketing him and his friends for pursuing a hobby that keeps them away from the Friday night party scene.
“It’s a better hobby then the stuff a lot of kids do, like spend money on drugs,” Lazear said.
Chan, who received a ticket himself last week for having an illegal air intake pipe connected to his engine, said police were waiting outside a car show held April 10 at the Earl Warren Showgrounds for people leaving the show with illegally modified cars. Police pulled over several vehicles, ordering the drivers to pop open the hoods so officers could inspect the engines. When one detained driver refused to open his hood, Chan said he saw officers place the man in handcuffs.
“The main reason they ticket, I assume, is that they think we’re going to street race,” said Chelsea Taylor, a 26-year-old website developer whose father is a mechanic. “It’s a form of harassment to pull you over. We’re not doing anything that is harmful to anyone.”
Sgt. Don Clotworthy, CHP spokesman, said although the Goleta and Santa Barbara areas have not had a specific problem with street racing, other areas like San Diego and Los Angeles have. He said the goal of enforcement is to keep the problem from spreading as the popularity of illegally modified vehicles continues to grow.
“Nobody’s being singled out,” Clotworthy said. “Typically most of the cars [that get pulled over] are in violation.”
In addition, Clotworthy said officers often discover engines that are improperly installed.
“There are other things that you can’t disconnect that we find disconnected,” he said.
Clotworthy and traffic Sgt. Greg Nordyke, of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept., confirmed that there was a police presence outside the April 10 auto show at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
“Our concern was preventing illegally modified cars from racing on city streets,” Nordyke said. “San Diego offered the training to us, and since then we now have the knowledge [to spot illegally modified cars].”
Nordyke, who describes illegally modified vehicles as “the new muscle cars,” said prior to the training, enforcement of laws regulating engine modifications was nonexistent. On the night of the auto show, he said the three deputies patrolling Goleta did not report any incidents of street racing. Although he said he was aware of several accidents caused by racing, including one that occurred approximately a month ago, he said he was not sure if any of the cars involved had been illegally modified. In general, Nordyke said he was also not sure how much street racing occurs in the area, if any.
“I’ve seen some [modified cars] that are very well maintained and that pass emissions tests,” he said. “But [people modifying cars] don’t talk about the dark side of this whole thing.”
Nordyke said auto theft is a negative side effect of car modification’s growing popularity. Car owners often remove and replace their entire engines for larger or more powerful models. He said some replacement engines that turn up in auto shops have come from stolen cars.
“I appreciate those who do it for a hobby. I have no problem with that,” Nordyke said. “But it’s the ones that scream the loudest who are the ones who have illegally modified parts.”
Nordyke said the movie “American Graffiti,” which ends in a fatal racing-related car wreck, is an example of the threat illegally modified cars pose to the safety of their drivers, passengers and other motorists.
“That’s the kind of tragedy we’re trying to prevent,” Nordyke said.
An Expensive Hobby
Bob Stockero, chair of the Santa Barbara City College Automotive Service and Technology, said he’s heard stories from his students about increased local enforcement regarding illegal engine modifications.
“If you’ve got a big tailpipe sticking out, you might as well just pull over when you drive by a cop,” Stockero said. “I was quite surprised with the kids telling me they are told to flip their hoods open. I didn’t realize [the police] had the authority to do that.”
SBCC is home to the regional office of the California Bureau of Automobile Repair, which is where drivers ticketed for illegal engine modifications must appear to have their car inspected by a third-party referee – for a $35 fee – after they are given a fix-it ticket. The referee determines what part of the car needs to be fixed and then confirms that the owner made the appropriate changes on a return visit, which is also covered by the initial $35 charge. The car’s owner must pay costs associated with correcting the violation.
“The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a car illegal,” Stockero said. “All you have to do is change an air filter.”
Stockero said SBCC teaches a generic approach to car maintenance and service.
“We don’t teach modifications at all,” Stocker said. “There is no course that we offer that specializes in high-performance anything.”
Antonio Medrano, a 23-year-old graduate student at UCSB who is majoring in media arts and technology, owns a heavily modified 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS. He smiles and looks away when asked how much money he’s put into it, saying he’s lost track.
“I modify my car because I like to race out there on the track,” Medrano said. “I’m not looking to race people off the street.”
However, since there is no suitable track in the area, Medrano, Chan and their friends have found themselves making an occasional four-hour, one-way trip to Famosa Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., which becomes an expensive excursion for a large group that needs to rent a hotel room because of the distance.
At the track, which charges $25 per car to race and an additional $10 per person to watch from the gallery, Medrano said drivers do not have to worry about traffic lights or other cars. In addition, drivers are required to wear helmets, while the raceway provides a safety crew.
Sean Behm, 20, an undeclared freshman at SBCC, said he paid $9,000 for his car, but has since put an additional $14,000 into it.
“It’s just like any hobby,” Behm said. “You’re going to spend money all the time. Cars just tend to add up.”
Off the Streets
While Santa Barbara has not seen a significant problem with illegal street racing, San Diego County is known for having one of the largest illegal street racing scenes in the country, in large part due to the sunny California climate that allows racing year-round, said San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept. Detective John Austin.
Austin works for Dragnet, a full-time, federally-funded police unit that has fought street racing since September 2001.
He said illegal San Diego street races frequently drew crowds of 1,200 people to dozens of popular locations, and the county was faced with an epidemic rise of the illegal racing scene.
“With the advent of movies popularizing this type of activity, the problem was growing,” Austin said. “It’s part of culture to make your car unique; that’s all well and good, but some modifications are made by a person who is not informed.”
He said education was a large part of the enforcement effort, not just writing tickets.
“One of the ways to have an impact was to multiply by training other law enforcement – by sharing what we know,” Austin said. “You don’t have to be at the races to catch them; you can stop them on the way to school or to the store.”
There are thousands of reasons a driver can be pulled over, Austin said. In cases involving visible race-inspired modifications, like spoilers, loud exhaust systems or racing style gauges, Austin said such cues give an officer probable cause to examine the engine for illegal modifications or help him determine whether a car has been modified for performance or just for looks.
“What would you think if you saw a big shift light, racing-style gauges or decals advertising nitrous?” Austin said. “There are lots of legal modifications, but all the officer has to do is find one alteration that alters emissions.”
Any part altering a vehicle’s emissions must be approved by the California Air Resource Board. A CARB sticker must then be attached to the part. If an officer finds that a CARB sticker is missing, the car is in violation.
Austin said many illegally modified cars pass emission standards tests, but they use cheaper parts that are not CARB-certified and are therefore illegal. However, if the part passes a test at a referee station, the citation can be voided once shown to a judge.
For cars that fail inspection at a state referee, Austin said it is likely that a judge will impose a strict fine.
“If the judge finds the violation was done willfully, he may not reduce the fine,” Austin said. “It’s a penalty for making changes to your car that cause pollution.”
David Piper, a third-year English major at UCSB, said drivers of modified cars are increasingly keeping them garaged for fear of receiving tickets.
“We’re running scared,” Piper said. “Every cop you see, your heart beats a little faster.”